A History of Music for Singers – The Baroque Era

A History of Music for SingersLast week, we began journeying through the history of music with the Renaissance period. The Renaissance slowly transitioned into the Baroque (Bar-RO-ck) period around the start of the 16th Century. The name Baroque developed from a Latinate word meaning “rough or imperfect pearl” and was actually initially used to make fun of the elaborate style of music and art which became popular. Now, it is just used in a more technical sense to talk about the creative arts in the century from about 1650 to about 1750.

Fashion in 1600sIn Britain, the Barque era saw the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (which included the English Civil War) and the union of the English and Scottish Parliaments to create the United Kingdom. This was a time when many Empires were being built, and the aristocracy were enjoying a golden age (that would soon come crashing down around their ears…).

One of the key aspects of music at this time is that it was mainly funded either by the church (as it had been in the Renaissance) or by the aristocracy. Musicians were employed by courts, or by theatres owned by rich noblemen, and they worked on commission. One of the most enduringly famous works of George Frederick Handel (the epitome of Baroque composition) is Zadok the Priest, which was composed for the coronation of George I of Great Britain in 1727:

The patronage of the upper classes encouraged the growth of formal ceremonial music, but it also saw new forms develop. The leisured classes wanted entertainment, and so the genres of opera (for secular stories) and oratorio (for religious and mythological texts) developed. In the early days, operas looked very similar to modern musicals with dance sections, scripted elements and songs. Here’s a song from Purcell’s early opera King Arthur.

Chamber Music

Chamber music also developed as a way for the rich to enjoy music in their own homes – in their “chambers”. Chamber music has a very small orchestra because the whole group had to fit in someone’s living room. Many of the chamber works at the time took inspiration from dance music like minuets, gavottes and sarabandes.

Church music also continued to be popular and important. One of the most influential writers of church music was J S Bach. Bach wrote hundreds of choral hymns, which are now known as “chorales”, and some of them are still sung in chuches today, and others have become famous in their own right, like Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.

Ordinary people too, were exposed to this church music. The Reformation had changed Sundays forever, and people were now singing hymns and psalms like never before. One of the principles of the Reformation was that every man should learn scripture and choose faith for himself. Singing hymns was one way to help the average Joe in the pew memorise bible verses and scriptural truths.

Outside church, broadside ballads still ruled popular music, and they would come to play an important role in motivating the general population to take sides in everything from the Reformation to the Civil War. The governments of the day also paid writers to produce warning songs about excecuted criminals. It was a little bit like setting the news stories found in The Sun to the music of Adele!

There were a number of popular vocal forms during the Baroque period. Some, like masques, masses and oratorios were new. Others, like Monody, were developments from Renaissance inventions like the Air:

These forms also developed for chamber orchestras:

When you’re listening to decide if something is Baroque music, it’s likely to have some of these features:

  • Elaborate – usually embellished with ornaments like trills and turns
  • Rhythmic – it’s easy to hear the beat
  • Complex and detailed – the different parts all keep moving around
  • Dramatic – thick harmonies, and changes in dynamics and tempo
  • Follows all the ‘rules’ of harmony – no chromatic chords, or strange arrangements

Composers to Remember:

–> Next week: The Classical Era

[Introduction] ♦ [Previous Post]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *